What do you do when you can't do the thing you love for 1,024 days?
Travel a little? Cross the country a couple of times? Or get a job, wake up at 5 a.m. to pack your own lunch and head to work with your dad on a construction site in the dead of winter?
Most of all, what you do is get perspective. That's exactly what quarterback Tom Savage, who is drawing a lot of interest as this week's NFL draft approaches, discovered during the nearly three years he spent waiting to throw a meaningful pass in a college game.
“The whole thing was humbling,” said Savage, who went from freshman All-American in 2009 at Rutgers to practically unknown commodity by 2013 at Pitt, where he had to walk on. In between, there was a stop at the University of Arizona.
“I was a young, bitter, pissed-off kid. Patience wasn’t part of my background. I had to go back and earn everything,” said Savage, who quit the Rutgers team after the 2010 season. Savage got hurt that season and was told by then-Rutgers coach Greg Schiano that he would have to compete to get his job back.
Savage left in a huff and ended up at Arizona, expecting to succeed Nick Foles as the starter in 2012 after sitting out a season. Problem was, coach Mike Stoops got fired and Rich Rodriguez was hired, bringing his spread-option offense.
Savage was not a good fit for that attack. So he returned home to Springfield, Pennsylvania, tried to get back into Rutgers (the NCAA turned down his application) and then had to wait around until he could walk on at Pitt.
As he volunteers details about his life, there are moments when the pain of not playing makes him wince a little. For instance, doing the construction job while he sorted out his next stop after Arizona was “definitely unique,'' he said. "I wasn’t expecting I’d be doing that, but it was all right.”
Really? It was “all right” for the former 4-star recruit and star of the team at powerhouse Cardinal O’Hara to return home so he could learn to swing a hammer? The kid who once beat rival Roman Catholic High of Philadelphia as a freshman backup with two fourth-quarter touchdown passes of longer than 70 yards was now OK doing day labor?
“As bad as things got, he never let it get him down, I’ll say that,” Cardinal O’Hara coach Dan Algeo said. “He’d come up to the school and lift and get his work in and didn’t get down about anything.”
Schiano still marvels at how Savage helped a relatively young Rutgers team finish 9-4 and go to a bowl game in 2009. Schiano has maintained a strong relationship with Savage and thinks the whole situation served Savage well.
“He got a little taste of the real world. ... If you don’t love what you do, that kind of adversity will knock you down. He’s one of the few guys who have had to overcome some things, and I think that can be his advantage. Very rarely is it a smooth shot to the top,” Schiano said.
The beauty of humiliation for those who are talented is it can serve as a powerful motivator when they finally get a chance. Tom Brady has used the indignation of being a sixth-round pick in 2000 to fuel his career. That slight hurt so deeply that Brady was once reduced to tears while talking about it.
The parallel between Brady and Savage became news last month when longtime draftnik Tony Pauline posted this comment on DraftInsiders.net:
The talk of the quarterback position the past few weeks has centered around Tom Savage of Pittsburgh. So what’s the inside story? Ever since the combine I’ve known the New England Patriots have been incredibly high on Savage and will consider using a pick to acquire the signal-caller during the draft. Some in the organization are now referring to Savage as ‘Tom #2,’ with Tom #1 of course being Tom Brady.
A Patriots official would neither confirm nor deny that evaluation, but eventually admitted: “The kid is really interesting. I’ll leave it at that.”
Savage said 24 of the NFL’s 32 teams have either had him in for a visit or have gone to him for an individual workout and interview. In a quarterback class that is akin to a bin filled with bruised apples, could Savage be the best of the bunch?
Aside from the Patriots, Miami, St. Louis and Cleveland are among the teams to bring in Savage. One general manager from an AFC team told Savage he “wouldn’t get out of the second round,” even though most people were projecting him as a fifth- or sixth-round pick in January.
The NFL also invited Savage to attend the draft in New York, a strong indication that he’s expected to go in the top two rounds. Savage declined the invitation.
“I just want to enjoy the process with my family. My grandpop is getting older now, and I’m a low-key guy,” Savage said before adding a deadpan crack. “I don’t even know if my dad has a suit to wear to that.”
Aside from maturity, the 6'5", 230-pound Savage has tangible characteristics. Five coaches and executives surveyed all said that he has the strongest arm in the draft, and Schiano said Savage’s arm is comparable to Joe Flacco's in Baltimore.
Furthermore, his accuracy improved as the 2013 season wore on, and the rust of not playing in a game between Nov. 13, 2010, and Sept. 2, 2013, wore off. For the season, Savage threw for 2,958 yards and 21 touchdowns, completing 61.9 percent of his passes and throwing only nine interceptions.
“As he practiced more and got used to game speed again, you could see everything come together for him,” Pitt offensive coordinator Joe Rudolph said. “A lot of accuracy comes with anticipation and knowing where to go with the ball at what moment. You could see him pick that up.”
Rudolph compared Savage to Russell Wilson, whom Rudolph helped coach at Wisconsin. Like Wilson, Savage was a one-year starter in a new program.
“They’re very different athletes in terms of size and what they do, but I think the sum total of what you’re talking about is similar. Tom came in and was very effective in just the one year. He had a really mature, take-charge attitude, which was important because we had so many young guys coming into the program,” Rudolph said.
In particular, the 24-year-old Savage didn’t complain when Pitt’s young, inexperienced offensive line had trouble protecting him consistently.
As another AFC general manager said: “I give him a lot of credit. He took a beating (at Pitt).”
Savage took it and refused to back down.
"There were a couple of times in some games where I thought I was going to have to wrestle him to the ground to keep him out of the game when the doctors were trying to check on him,” Rudolph said. “He didn’t want to come out. He has that mindset as a competitor, but I literally had to have a couple of guys there to hold him back. That was genuine from him.”
It’s the kind of will and desperation that comes from having waited so long to play again.